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From a childhood surrounded by crack to the Olympic Games: Leon Reid's remarkable road to track stardom


Leon Reid

Leon Reid

Getty Images

Leon Reid

From a childhood in a "crack den" to a career as a world-class sprinter, life sure has taken some strange turns for Leon Reid.

The 25-year-old may now be one of Ireland's leading hopes for next year's Olympics, but his is a journey that could so easily have gone astray.

Born and raised in the English midlands, his upbringing was turbulent, to say the least.

"There'd be people downstairs smoking crack or heroin," he says.

Reid spent time in 14 different foster homes, but the escape hatch came via a Wexford native, Claire Russell, who adopted him when he was 11. His birth mother, Anne-Marie, hailed from Belfast and had struggled with drug addiction for years before passing away in 2016.

He was living in Bristol when he first found athletics, coming under the guidance of coach James Hillier, who has steered his career for the past 10 years.

In his first season Reid won 100m silver at the European Youth Olympics while representing Britain, though his relationship with British Athletics soured in the years after. "I got double-crossed," he says. "They went back on their word a few times."

His national identity had always been loosely defined: "My whole mum's side is Northern Irish and my foster mum is born in Wexford. My dad is English and Jamaican, so I'm actually more Irish than English."

Reid had been back and forth to Wexford throughout his teens and, in 2017, he applied for a transfer of allegiance to represent Ireland. That was approved just before the 2018 European Championships in Berlin, where he finished seventh in the 200m final. In April that year he won 200m bronze for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games, after which tears flowed for both Reid and his mother.

"When she cries, I cry," he says. "It was everything we'd worked for, from me getting up early, eating right, not going to parties, and her making sure I had enough money to go to training camps."

In his early 20s he had juggled three jobs to make ends meet, coaching athletics at a school, managing a supplement shop and working in a night club. How did he find the time? "Four or five hours' sleep."

His 200m best is 20.27, which might sneak him into a global final, but to make a bigger impact Reid needs to improve. As such, he's spent much time learning from the greats. At the age of 17 he went to Jamaica to train alongside Usain Bolt. "Their work ethic was crazy, 5am starts every morning. Before the sun comes up, you're on the grass pulling sleds."

He later became friends with Wayde van Niekerk, the Olympic champion and 400m world record holder, and in January Reid went to train with him in South Africa.

What did he learn? "One, he's superhuman. Two, he doesn't overwork everything. There's a fixed plan for everything and you trust the people around you." The pair pushed each other to new heights.

Reid has since returned to Bath and has maintained his fitness as best he can in the age of coronavirus, lifting weights in a friend's garage and training alone at a disused track.

"When you can't be bothered to get out of bed, you remind yourself: I'm supposed to be at the Olympics next year, which is surreal," says Reid. "As a kid, you dream of that."

Belfast Telegraph